Rwanda bucks blind obedience

For a decade, genocide survivors have been reluctant to finger perpetrators; that's slowly changing.

To understand the significance of this story there's something you must know about Rwandans: They're famously willing to follow orders given by authority figures.

Leaders were once - and are sometimes still - thought to be divinely ordained. When they order, people act. Ten years ago, extremist officials told Rwanda's Hutus to "do their work" and kill their neighbors. Up to 500,000 did so. They used machetes and guns to slaughter nearly 1 million people.

But a decade later, Rwanda's ethic of blind obedience may be fading. One example: The other day, in this hilltop village, a small but significant drama unfolded in which the locals rebelled against local authority. They accused the village's top leader of complicity in genocide. It was a big risk. He controls access to healthcare, farming assistance, and other government services.

The accusations are emblematic of an new willingness to question authority. After so many leaders - from politicians to Roman Catholic priests - were involved in the genocide, citizens trust them less. In the past 10 years, there's been an explosion of non-Catholic churches. There are a growing number of private schools. And residents have bucked efforts by military officials to appropriate valuable land.

"People risk quite a lot" by standing up to authorities, but increasingly they're doing it, says Klaas De Jonge, a longtime observer of Rwandan society who works for Penal Reform International, a justice group based in London.

Yet on the Kanombe hilltop, the peasant revolt didn't come easily or quickly. After all, the leader, Jean-Baptiste Habarurema, is called "the responsible" and is a powerful man. He's one of the few in the village who wears a blazer.

In fact, it took a citizen who's considered "crazy" here - Gisupery Job - to jump-start the rebellion. It began in a session of gacaca - Rwanda's community court system that aims to deal with some lower-level alleged genocide perpetrators. Gathered under four plastic tarps held up by wooden poles, about 100 villagers sat on simple wooden benches. A panel of judges elected by villagers presided. They aimed to dispense justice for the 101 people killed here during the genocide.

When the judges asked citizens for input, Mr. Job spoke up, pointing to Mr. Habarurema: "He brought a pickup truck full of guns to our village," he yelled. "He told people to kill. All of you were here. You know what happened. Why aren't you saying what you know?"

Villagers tittered uncomfortably at this explosive suggestion. For one thing, Job is considered a kind of "village idiot" here. He's been unstable ever since the genocide - when his children were killed and his wife was maimed. It's only noon, and the smell of alcohol is on his breath.

But he may be speaking the truth. Soon, a woman in an orange head-dress stood up to confirm that she's heard the same thing about Habarurema - although she denies seeing it herself. When Job walked away from the gathering in disgust, another woman flashed him a surreptitious thumbs-up.

The women's reluctance to accuse Habarurema outright hints at how hard it is for the truth - or at least Rwandans' suspicions about it - to emerge in gacacas.

Gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha) courts are the government's answer to the fact that some 100,000 people have been charged with genocidal acts - and that it can't possibly try all of them in formal courts. It has decided to release 30,000 who've confessed their roles. They will stand trial in gacaca courts, perhaps making this history's biggest experiment in community justice.

It aims to promote reconciliation and justice between perpetrators and survivors. Its success, observers say, depends on how much of the truth is revealed. But one government-imposed rule may prevent a big slice of truth from emerging: Discussion is forbidden about whether the Rwandan Patriotic Front - the onetime rebel group that's now Rwanda's main political party - was involved in revenge killings of Hutus during and after the genocide. Some estimate the RPF killed as many as 200,000 people.

Back in the village, a tall thin woman named Bayisingize Venancy suddenly rises. "I saw him." she says, pointing to Habarurema. "He was dressed in a CDR uniform," she says referring to a radical Hutu-power party. "He brought guns into the village."

Habarurema smiles uncomfortably. He admits he had a uniform. "Yes, it's green, I agree," he says, "But it's not CDR." He says he brought three guns into the village. Later he says his accusers are simply out to settle a grudge. Indeed, there's a great danger that the gacacas will be manipulated.

Now it's up to the judges to decide. They will make their determination in several months, during the next phase of the gacaca process.

Afterward, when asked about the risks of accusing Habarurema, Ms. Venancy is indignant. "I'm not afraid," she says. "I only worry if I say something I don't know is true. But I know this is true." Now that gacacas have come, she says, "It's up to him to worry."

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